Fast-track rules had been expected for the estimated 3.6 million people currently applying to remain in the UK, as many seek the extra security of permanent residency rights.
However, under changes slipped out on a Friday earlier this month, some EU nationals have now been told to produce further evidence that they have been living in the UK legally – even after securing so-called “settled status“.
The new rules include that they took out comprehensive sickness insurance (CSI) to cover any periods of unemployment, when there was no such requirement at the time.
This was required for settled status until the stipulation was dropped by Theresa May three years ago after widespread criticism – but it has now been revived for permanent residence, the path to full citizenship.
The3million group, representing EU nationals in the UK, described the new hurdles as potentially “devastating”, amid a flood of applications for the extra security provided by UK citizenship.
People were now “at the mercy” of immigration officers using their discretion – when a lack of CSI led to a third of residency applications being rejected in the past – and after paying a whopping application fee of £1,300.
One EU national, Leticia, said: “I am worried that my application will now be refused because I didn’t provide evidence for something that I wasn’t asked to provide evidence for when I submitted my application. How is that fair?”
A second, Larissa, protested: “This has just happened to me. Submitted my naturalisation application in January and three days ago I was told to provide evidence of private medical insurance from 2013!”
Maike Bohn, co-founder of the3million, said the two women were among more than 400 EU nationals who had made their fears known in just a few days.
“They see British citizenship as the way to guarantee that their rights are safe because the settlement scheme could be tampered with and does not do that,” she told The Independent.
“It would be devastating to have an application rejected in this way, having invested months in gathering evidence for settled status in some cases and after spending huge amounts of money.”
The new rules come after criticism that settled status – far from protecting all the rights of the people most affected by Brexit, as claimed – will fail to treat EU nationals as equals.
Ministers have repeatedly been warned that harder-to-reach people, such as the elderly, children in care and those who are being exploited, will slip through the net.
On Thursday, it was revealed that the number of applications for settled status has plummeted following the closure of phone advice lines and scanning centres because of the Covid-19 lockdown, sparking calls for more time.
Meanwhile, under plans to end free movement on 1 January, EU nationals will require a visa to work, rent a home, or use public services – despite being told that, before the deadline for settled status applications in June next year, only a passport would be needed.
In addition, the government refused pleas to give EU nationals the same physical proof of their right to stay as other immigrants – a measure that is necessary to prevent “another Windrush scandal”, some have said – instead relying on a digital system.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, demanded “clarity”, adding: “With the Windrush scandal, we have seen what happens when a government does not have fairness and the national interest at the heart of our immigration system, and this must not happen again.”
The new naturalisation guidance, issued on 15 May, is the first time the Home Office has said that having settled status is not sufficient to be granted permanent residency.
It tells officials to consider “on the balance of probabilities whether they were here: as a qualified person (such as a worker, student, self-employed, self-sufficient, retired or incapacitated person) [or] as the family member of such a person”.
The guidance adds: “Where appropriate, you must also be satisfied that the person was lawfully in the UK, with comprehensive sickness insurance (CSI).”
To become a British citizen, a process known as naturalisation, a person must prove they have lived in the UK legally for five years, or three years if married to a Briton.
A Home Office spokesperson insisted there was no change to the guidance issued in 2018, saying: “These requirements are not new and have always been in place.
“If someone wishes to make an application for citizenship, they are very welcome to do so through the usual routes and fulfil the requirements for naturalisation.”